May 4, 2021

Biden admin to ban menthol cigarettes

Biden admin to ban menthol cigarettes

What will the impact be?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

We are covering the menthol cigarette ban and we’ve got a new podcast. Plus, some reader feedback instead of today’s reader question.

A Newport ad from 1970. Photo: National Museum of American History

Two things to share.

First, I shared the wrong link to my subscribers-only piece about the death penalty that was released on Friday. You can read it here (but you have to subscribe!)

Also, yesterday, we released a new podcast with Dr. Leana Wen. Dr. Wen is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, the former Baltimore Health Commissioner, and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post. We spoke about coronavirus, whether we should still be wearing masks outside, her views on the J&J vaccine issues and where we are in the pandemic. You can listen here.

Quick hits.

  1. The Food and Drug Administration is preparing to authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for adolescents 12 to 15 years old. (CBS News)
  2. Joe Biden is raising the refugee admissions cap to 62,500 after blowback for backing off that number because of a surge of migrants on the southern border. (The Wall Street Journal)
  3. Warren Buffett said Berkshire Hathaway was seeing “very substantial inflation” in its various collection of businesses. (CNBC)
  4. New York City is scheduled to fully reopen in mid-May, with full subway services and restaurants, offices, theaters, and gyms all at full capacity. (The New York Times)
  5. Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, is continuing to hammer her colleagues for promoting “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, causing backlash from her own party. (Axios)

What D.C. is talking about.

Banning menthol cigarettes. Last week, the Biden administration announced it intended to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. The proposal was announced on Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a rule change that could eliminate a third of all cigarette sales in the U.S. The policy could take years to implement and is part of a larger plan the Biden administration is pursuing to reduce how much nicotine is in cigarettes.

The decision to target menthol cigarettes comes after the FDA found in a 2013 study that they were harder to quit than regular cigarettes and may also be more deleterious to one’s health. The FDA also said the menthol flavor is more associated with new smokers, as its cooling properties reduce the initial harshness of a drag on a cigarette.

Targeting menthols has also become a social justice issue because 84 percent of Black smokers in America smoke menthols, as do 47 percent of Hispanic smokers, and menthol cigarette brands like Newport have long targeted Black smokers in their marketing campaigns. FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said the ban would reduce youth initiation and address health disparities among poor people, people of color and LGTBQ people.

In order to ban the cigarettes, the Biden administration has said, the FDA would focus on manufacturers, not consumers. But concerns have been raised about the potential for criminalizing the possession or sale of menthols.

Below, we’ll take a look at some responses to this policy.

What the right is saying.

The right is opposed to the ban, arguing that prohibition will only criminalize cigarettes further while the health justifications around menthol cigarettes are still unclear.

In Reason, Jacob Grier argued that this ban will only cause more police interactions with Black Americans.

“It's not surprising that health groups want menthol cigarettes taken off the market,” Jacob Grier said in Reason. “The more interesting subject is how the public health case against menthol collides with concerns about the policing of black communities, placing progressives in the uncomfortable position of endorsing a new form of drug prohibition. Is the cause of social justice truly served by outlawing a product precisely because of its popularity with African Americans?

“This is no idle worry,” he added. “Recall that Eric Garner's fatal encounter with police began with an arrest for the petty crime of selling loose cigarettes and ended with him being choked to death by a New York City cop. (Garner's mother, Gwendolyn Carr, became a vocal opponent of a proposal to ban menthol cigarettes in New York City.) And in Massachusetts, which banned menthol cigarettes in 2020, at least one illicit seller is facing prosecution amid a reportedly thriving black market. Executives at big tobacco companies might lament the loss in sales of menthol cigarettes, but the brunt of enforcement is more likely to be borne by people such as Garner, especially if a federal ban is backed by state and local measures.”

In The Hill, Guy Bentley wrote that it’s not just bad for criminal justice, it’s also bad health policy.

“FDA-funded modeling claims that 5 million smokers would quit in the first year of President Biden’s proposed policy,” he said. “But such estimates are derived from a simulation based on the subjective guestimates of eight experts. These experts also assume widespread availability of safer alternatives such as e-cigarettes, which is a dubious assumption since the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a host of states are doing everything they can to ban vaping. The FDA’s paper is a classic case of ‘policy-based,’ where a policy is proposed and evidence is created to support it.”

In Politico, Jack Shafer echoed that sentiment.

“The FDA’s helping hand would be greatly appreciated by all if menthol cigarettes were uniquely deadly. But they’re not,” he wrote. “The FDA’s own studies have found that they pose no greater health risk than non-mentholated varieties. And while some research demonstrates that menthols are harder to quit, other findings dispute this. Meanwhile, civil rights groups, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all framed the ban as a social justice issue designed to improve the health of African Americans, menthols’ most loyal consumers—to whom the industry has historically pushed the product…

“Without debate, tobacco reduces lifespans and sabotages the otherwise healthy with debilitating illnesses,” he said. “It’s a cancer-causing, heart-stopping, stroke-inducing, lung-sapping, stinky scourge. But does tobacco’s rap sheet make the proposed menthol ban just? The ACLU and other justice groups, drug policy shops and law enforcement question the wisdom of a ban that will come down hardest on Black and Brown communities. Aamra Ahmad, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel, fears the ban will create a demand for an underground supply of mentholated smokes, and this underground will give police the pretext to conduct overreaching criminal investigations involving Black people and others based on the smell of their cigarette smoke.”

What the left is saying.

The left mostly supports the ban, arguing that it would improve health outcomes for African Americans and that enforcement would focus on manufacturers, retailers and distributors.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board said it is “not just the single most important step the federal agency has taken [to] reduce the deadly impact of tobacco use in the U.S. It’s also one that comes with significant racial justice implications.”

“Although smoking has plummeted in the U.S. since its heyday in the mid-20th century, tobacco-related ailments are still the main cause of preventable death,” the board said. “And even while Black Americans smoke at lower rates than other ethnic groups, they are more likely to die from tobacco-related disease. And, finally, about 85% of Black Americans who smoke choose menthol cigarettes, which are easier to get hooked on and harder to quit.

“If it sounds a bit nanny state-ish to ban an otherwise legal product used by consenting adults, consider this: In 2009, Congress gave the FDA authority to ban all other flavors in cigarettes, which it did in order to make these dangerous products less attractive to new smokers,” they added. “But Congress stalled on menthols and asked for more study. The FDA did more research and found that menthol, which is similar to mint, is the most insidious of all flavors… Unlike those other flavors, however, menthol cigarettes have anesthetic properties that mask the abrasiveness of tobacco smoke and induce users to inhale more deeply, increasing their exposure to the harmful chemicals in the smoke, which some researchers believe increases addiction.”

In The Washington Post, Maryland’s Democratic Rep. Darryl Barnes argued in favor of a ban.

“Since the 1950s, Big Tobacco has marketed menthol-flavored products to the Black community using Black-dominated media,” he said. “It has cultivated Black celebrity endorsers to hook users, deflecting criticism of their practices by making financial contributions to prominent, Black-run organizations. Today, about 90 percent of adult Black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, a rate more than double that of White smokers… Roughly 45,000 Black Americans die from tobacco use every single year. In Maryland, Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of lung cancer than any other demographic group, and they suffer heart disease at a rate 56 percent higher than white Marylanders.”

The Bloomberg editorial board broke from it’s typical centrist positioning and defended the ban, summarizing many of the most prominent arguments on the left. In fact, the board said, the FDA should ban menthol cigarettes and ban all flavors, including menthol, of e-cigarettes.

“By seeming to cool the throat and soothe the irritation from burning tobacco, menthol makes smoking more palatable,” the board wrote. “This lures young people — close to half of all kids who smoke begin with menthol cigarettes — and helps to keep adults hooked. From 1980 to 2018, menthol encouraged an extra 10.1 million Americans to become smokers and was responsible for 378,000 extra premature deaths and a total of 3 million life-years lost, a recent study found…

“A ban, opponents say, might create a new point of friction between African Americans and law enforcement,” the board added. “It’s also possible, however, that a menthol ban would persuade more African American smokers to quit. After menthol cigarettes were banned in much of Canada, daily menthol smokers began quitting at almost twice the rate of other smokers. What’s certain is that allowing menthol cigarettes to remain on the market will continue to spur heart disease, respiratory illness, cancer and other health problems that disproportionately afflict Black Americans. It’s no wonder so many African American advocacy groups are calling for a menthol ban.”

My take.

It’s kind of shocking to me that we’re even here. There’s no doubt that menthol cigarettes disproportionately harm people of color — and the science at least appears to indicate that they are harder to quit and easier to get hooked on. But there’s so much wrong with any proposed drug ban that it’s hard to grasp how this could be our best solution.

The first issue, and the most obvious, is that we know drug prohibition doesn’t work. Alcohol is the most classic example, but we’re witnessing the full repercussions of bans that haven’t even been undone yet. There are concerted and worthwhile efforts to decriminalize drug use all across the country — and a growing bipartisan consensus to pursue that. Yet, at the same moment advocates are now working to add a substance to the list of banned products. Advocates continue to parrot the talking point that “manufacturers” will face the ban, but — right now — people are already being prosecuted for selling cigarettes. What happens when there is a thriving black market?

Second, and to that point, is that there is no way this does not come down on communities of color. Ban menthols from being sold in stores, and the year before the ban comes into place there will be a frenzy of skyrocketing prices and people hoarding menthol cigarettes. Then we’ll waste more money and time trying to track down the people selling them illegally.

Third: tobacco isn’t just bad for Black people. If we’re going to ban menthols, why not ban all cigarettes? Why not attempt to limit nicotine consumption on the whole by promoting alternatives or ways to quit? Once you’re in the position of banning tobacco, it no longer becomes tenable to leave things like alcohol legal, which is far more likely to harm people not consuming it than the people opting to. We are, right now, seeing the left both push to legalize psychedelic mushrooms or MDMA to treat depression and PTSD while also arguing we should ban menthol cigarettes… it’s nonsensical from a decriminalization perspective, and it’s odd to see the left’s disconnect from viewing it in that lens.

I understand there are many African American advocacy groups who view this ban as a good idea. It’s true that, among many others, the NAACP supports the ban. But there is nothing close to a consensus. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the American Civil Liberties Union, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, and Al Sharpton's National Action Network have all expressed various concerns including outright opposition.

There are plenty of good arguments about the horrific health impacts of menthol cigarettes, and I wholeheartedly support government money being spent on public campaigns to reduce smoking (which saves us all money in the end). The Biden administration has also expressed a desire to reduce nicotine in certain products, which is a more creative and probably more worthwhile pursuit. Similarly, there’s been some research showing low-nicotine e-cigs are also a path out of cigarettes, and that is an idea I could see gaining some momentum (and also another worthy pursuit).

I understand Big Tobacco is a scourge on the country, and it’s tough to swallow pushing their customers from one product to another. They are also funding Black community leaders to oppose this ban and help preserve their profits, which is an infuriating thing to witness.

But so far, nobody is making compelling points to counter the two biggest drawbacks of this, which are that prohibition has never worked and that criminalizing menthol cigarettes will almost certainly end up landing more people in jail over the sale, distribution or use of a controlled substance. How anyone could think those are acceptable outcomes in this moment is beyond me.


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Reader feedback.

First, several readers wrote in with criticisms of Kevin Williamson’s piece in The National Review. TJ from Baltimore, Maryland, said he found Williamson’s argument “particularly ridiculous.”

To call the Democratic party “the party of organized hatred,” to say they “have no philosophy, only an enemies list,” is honestly hilarious. The Republican party wasted months under the Trump presidency trying to “Repeal and Replace” the Affordable Care Act while never actually presenting a viable replacement. They never once cared about giving people healthcare; they were only interested in dismantling Obamacare because it is named after Barack Obama. Furthermore, many Democrats in Congress voted for stimulus packages under Trump, but not one voted to allow Joe Biden to help the American people during a crisis. The argument presented here is nothing more than projection.

Josh from Bellevue, Washington, said Tim Scott’s beliefs “are still essentially being written off as just a quirk to him with nothing worth considering if you don't give any acknowledgment of why (other than cynical politics) he might see things differently.”

I think Kevin Williamson, in the same article you cite, went on to state a part of the debate pretty well: “Conservatives have long embraced — always imperfectly and often half-heartedly — the individualist approach, the view that African Americans ought to be understood first and foremost as individuals and citizens rather than as members of a racial minority or a social and political group ... The Left and the Democratic party have generally embraced the opposite approach, one that envisions not a republic composed of individual citizens but a ‘multiracial democracy’ in which the most important social units are solidarity groupings defined by one criterion or another: race, sex, sexual orientation, etc.”

This is a fundamental disagreement between perspectives that is worth discussing and has a lot of relevance right now but it's hardly "the best arguments from across the political spectrum" if you act as though one of them doesn't exist. Balance isn't achieved by just critiquing one side either, if you don't allow for any actual stated alternative that might be seriously considered.

Finally, a few readers noted that John McWhorter (who I lumped in as “Black conservative”) has described his own views as liberal. McWhorter is a fascinating person and it’s true that he has called himself a “cranky Democrat.” It’s also true he spends far more of his time and energy criticizing the left than anything else. Others noted that Coleman Hughes does not identify politically left or right and that Kmele Foster says he’s a Libertarian. All of this is true (though I’d argue Hughes and Foster are very clearly right of center, while McWhorter is probably right at the middle).

Regardless, I think the debate is just illustrative of what my point was, and why Tangle exists: people are nuanced. Their views are often incongruent (like mine). And not everyone fits neatly into left or right boxes, or under the umbrella of what you think they should be because of their race. I know I try to organize views as from the “right” and “left” in this newsletter, but I’m also working within the boundaries of what I think people understand as our divisions. So sometimes I fall into the trap, too.

A story that matters.

Demographic changes that liberals have long supposed would benefit them politically may not be as advantageous as previously thought. The New York Times chief pollster Nate Cohn is out with a new piece about Census Bureau data, and how it challenges some prevailing assumptions about Democrats and Republicans.

“These demographic and population shifts are powerfully clarifying about electoral politics in America: The increasing racial diversity among voters isn’t doing quite as much to help Democrats as liberals hope, or to hurt Republicans as much as conservatives fear,” he wrote. “The expanding Democratic disadvantage in the Electoral College underscores how the growing diversity of the nation may not help Democrats enough to win in places they most need help. Just as often, population growth is concentrated in red states — like Texas and Florida — where the Democrats don’t win nonwhite voters by the overwhelming margins necessary to overcome the state’s Republican advantage.” (The New York Times)


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Have a nice day.

During a recent flight to Hawaii, a series of nearly unbelievable events took place. First, Lavinia Mounga went into labor without knowing she was even pregnant. The woman, realizing that her water had just broken, alerted staff on the plane. The second remarkable thing came when Dr. Dale Glenn heard the flight attendants ask if there was a doctor on board, and jumped into action. But the third and most remarkable moment came when three NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) nurses also happened to be on the plane in the middle of an unexpected, premature birth.

The nurses and the doctor helped Mounga get through the delivery, and at 29 weeks she gave birth to a new baby boy named Raymond. The plane had enough equipment to keep Raymond stable for three hours until the plane landed, with the NICU nurses at one point using an Apple Watch to monitor his heart rate. "I don't know how a patient gets so lucky as to have three neonatal intensive care nurses onboard the same flight when she is in emergency labor, but that was the situation we were in," Glenn said. "The great thing about this was the teamwork. Everybody jumped in together and everyone helped out." (CNN)

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